Jack the Giant Slayer Review: Bryan Singer's Adventure Film Has an Old-Fashioned Spirit 

Thursday, Feb 28 2013

To paraphrase Stephen Sondheim, there are big, tall, terrible, fleshy, bulbous-headed giants in the sky in Jack the Giant Slayer. And what would a big-budget, mildly revisionist, 3-D spin on "Jack and the Beanstalk" be if those fearsome beasties didn't somehow make it down to sea level, where a storybook British kingdom looms — given said giants' appetite for human flesh — like a medieval Whole Foods? That journey is facilitated, of course, by the eponymous Jack (Nicholas Hoult), who, thankfully, has been allowed to remain a naive farm boy in this telling of the tale, despite Hollywood's unyielding desire to turn all formerly innocuous childhood icons into lethal vampire and witch hunters or — in the case of poor Santa Claus in last year's excruciating Rise of the Guardians — a tattooed Russian gangster.

Indeed, it's one of the pleasures — not incidental — of Jack that the film's tone is more classical fairy tale than hipster graphic novel, replete with swashbuckling derring-do, beautiful distressed maidens, valiant knights on horseback and characters who speak in whole sentences rather than quips and catchphrases. The director is Bryan Singer, whose X-Men films have always struck me as comic book cinema at its most mirthless and heavy-handed, but whose non-mutant movies reveal the touch of a supremely confident Hollywood craftsman, from the jackknife film noir The Usual Suspects to the plot-to-kill-Hitler thriller Valkyrie. In Jack — surely his most lighthearted, purely pleasurable film — Singer evokes a bygone era of fantasy filmmaking, when the illusions before our eyes were created in an artist's studio rather than a computer lab. It's more Jason and the Argonauts than Shia and the Transformers.

Working with his regular cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel, Singer shoots in clean, unfussy compositions, which allow us to follow the action easily, even when the earth moves under the characters' feet and the sky comes tumbling down. Though there's no shortage of computer graphics at work here, the movie maintains the tactile, handcrafted look of those beloved childhood books where, with each successive turn, some new marvel literally popped up from the page.

Related Stories

At less than two hours, Jack also has a sure sense of pacing and knows when to make a graceful exit — qualities nearly as rare at the movies today as 35mm prints, good projection and well-behaved audiences.

Simply put: Any five minutes of this is preferable to all of The Hobbit.

Jack the Giant Slayer has its roots in "Jack the Giant Killer," an 18th-century Cornish fable set during Arthurian times and featuring a Jack who was more wily rapscallion than emergent Joseph Campbell hero. Singer's film, too, once bore "Killer" in its title, until some combination of market research and zeitgeist fretting over pop culture violence prompted a change. But the somewhat gentler moniker is more in tune with Singer's sense of old-fashioned showmanship, and with Hoult's performance — a Jack who slays when he must but never seems driven by a killer instinct.

This isn't as rich a part for the young British actor as his recent turn in the zombie rom-com Warm Bodies (where he also found himself swimming upstream against the food chain), but he's very likable, with the hesitant, milk-fed smile of the young Tom Cruise and a nice, unforced chemistry with newcomer Eleanor Tomlinson. Her Princess Isabelle is one of those spunky, independent-minded royals who periodically absconds from the castle to see how the other 99 percent live. On one such jaunt, she and Jack first make not-quite–bedroom eyes, at a market where he's come to sell his horse, when he gallantly intervenes after some drooling drunks accost the incognito princess in a most ungentlemanly fashion.

The rest you more or less know: Jack comes home with a handful of beans, the price of horse not being what it once was. Then a rainstorm sets those beans sprouting like some unholy tincture of Miracle-Gro and HGH. 'Round and 'round the enormous vegetable goes, scooping up Jack's farmhouse the way a certain Kansas twister did to Dorothy's, and this is when Jack really finds its footing.

The beanstalk itself is a remarkable creation — all gnarled, Gordian tendrils and leaves that rise and fall like lungs. So too are the giants a sight worth beholding, especially the dyspeptic, two-headed Fallon, whose larger, more articulate noggin is voiced by Bill Nighy, and whose smaller one grunts and cackles in the distinctive register of John Kassir (whom viewers of a certain age will recall as the voice of the Crypt Keeper on HBO's Tales From the Crypt). Jack and Isabelle fight these un-heavenly creatures on their celestial turf for a while, with the help of a royal army under the command of Ewan McGregor (doing his best Kenneth Branagh impression), and with no help from Stanley Tucci as a sniveling human saboteur. Then, everyone heads south.

Jack the Giant Slayer is not flush with surprises. We are never too much in doubt that man will somehow triumph over giant, or that the brave commoner will win the approval of the blue bloods. But there is something to be said for the simple satisfactions of a familiar tale well told, like the bedtime stories passed down from parents to children that provide Singer's film with its elegant framing device.

By the standards of today's bombastic "event" movies, this is a refreshingly modest endeavor — one in which the main event is the skillful holding of our attention, all the way from "Once upon a time" to "Happily ever after."

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER | Directed by Bryan Singer | Written by Darren Lemke, Christopher McQuarrie and Dan Studney | Warner Bros. | Citywide

Reach the writer at sfoundas@villagevoice.com

Related Content

Jack the Giant Slayer
Rated PG-13 · 114 minutes · 2013
Official Site: jackthegiantslayer.warnerbros.com
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Darren Lemke, David Dobkin and Christopher McQuarrie Dan Studney
Producer: Neal H. Moritz, David Dobkin, Bryan Singer, Patrick McCormick and Ori Marmur
Cast: Nicholas Hoult, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci, Eddie Marsan, Ewen Bremner, Ian McShane, Christopher Fairbank, Simon Lowe and Mingus Johnston


Now Playing

Sorry there are no upcoming showtimes for Jack the Giant Slayer

Now Showing

  1. Wed 20
  2. Thu 21
  3. Fri 22
  4. Sat 23
  5. Sun 24
  6. Mon 25
  7. Tue 26

    Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

    Sponsored by Fandor

Box Office Report

Scores provided by Rotten Tomatoes

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, concert and dining info & more!


  • 20 Neo-Noir Films You Have to See
    The Voice's J. Hoberman was more mixed than most on Sin City when he reviewed it in 2005, but his description of the film as "hyper-noir" helps explain why this week's release of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For has us thinking back on the neo-noir genre. Broadly speaking, neo-noir encompasses those films made outside of film noir's classic period -- the 1940s and '50s -- that nevertheless engage with the standard trappings of the genre. As with most generic labels, there isn't some universal yardstick that measures what constitutes a neo-noir film: Where the genre might begin in the '60s with films like Le Samourai and Point Blank for one person, another might argue that the genre didn't find its roots until 1974's Chinatown. Our list falls closer to the latter stance, mainly featuring works from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Though a number of the films mentioned here will no doubt be familiar to readers, it's our hope that we've also highlighted several titles that have been under-represented on lists of this nature. --Danny King

    See also:
    35 Music Documentaries Worth Seeing

    15 Documentaries That Help You Understand the World Right Now
  • Emmy-Nominated Costumes on Display
    On Saturday, the Television Academy and FIDM Museum and Galleries kicked off the Eighth Annual exhibition of "The Outstanding Art of Television Costume Design" with an exclusive preview and reception party. 100 costumes are featured from over 20 shows representing the nominees of the 66th Emmy Awards. The free to the public exhibition is located downtown at FIDM and runs from today through Saturday, September 20th. All photos by Nanette Gonzales.
  • Cowabunga! 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
    The COWABUNGA! - 30 Years of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles tribute show opened Friday night at Iam8bit. Guests donned their beloved turtle graphic tees, onesies and a couple April O'Neils were there to report on all the mean, green, fighting machine action. Artist included Jude Buffum, Tony Mora, Nan Lawson, leesasaur, Jim Rucc, Mitch Ansara, Guin Thompson, Stratman, Gabe Swarr, Joseph Harmon, Alex Solis, Allison Hoffman, Jose Emroca Flores, Jack Teagle and more. All photos by Shannon Cottrell.

Now Trending